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National law reform: safe surfing

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Cite as: (2008) 82(12) LIJ, p.82

Despite understanding how to use the internet, children and young people are not always aware of the impact that their online activities may have on their privacy.

The ALRC recommends education rather than regulation when it comes to equipping children with the tools for understanding the issue of privacy and the internet.

On 30 January 2006, then federal Attorney-General Philip Ruddock asked the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) to examine whether the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth) and related laws continued to provide an effective framework for the protection of privacy in Australia.

On 11 August 2008, the ALRC’s final report, For Your Information: Australian privacy law and practice (ALRC 108), was tabled in federal Parliament. Part I of the report examines the privacy of children, young people and adults requiring assistance.1

In every inquiry, the ALRC engages in a process of extensive public consultation.

While this process does not preclude participation by children and young people, experience indicates that they do not tend to engage in it without specific prompting. Accordingly, the ALRC used a number of strategies to engage children and young people with the inquiry – for example, it developed a website called “Talking privacy”, which was aimed specifically at young people and was accessible from the ALRC’s home page, and conducted a number of workshops on privacy with young people. One aspect of the ALRC’s report relating to children, young people and the internet is addressed in this article.

Children, young people and the internet

The advent of the internet had significant ramifications for information privacy. Today, the internet is a repository of vast amounts of personal information that can be easily accessed and searched by people all over the world.

Children and young people are adept at using communication technologies such as the internet. Research indicates that large numbers of Australian children and young people regularly use the internet, in some cases with limited or no supervision. For example, a 2006 survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics revealed that 65 per cent of children and young people aged 5–14 years use the internet, with 73 per cent using it more than once a week.2

Despite understanding how to use the internet, children and young people are not always aware of the impact that their online activities may have on their privacy. For example, they are much more likely to disclose personal information online than older people – they enter online competitions, fill in registration pages to join websites and post photographs of themselves on blogs. They also disclose large amounts of personal information on social networking websites such as MySpace, Facebook, BeBo and YouTube.

These websites enable members to meet people, send messages to each other, and post photographs and videos of themselves for others to view.

The willingness of children and young people to disclose personal information in the online environment may be explained by the fact that they are often unaware of the permanence of information published on the internet. For example, many think that deleting information that they have posted on the internet means that it is completely removed from the online environment.

The amount of personal information a child or young person discloses online can affect their reputation and career prospects. It could also expose them to dangers such as commercial exploitation, sexual predation and identity theft. Despite this, however, children and young people are given little guidance on “safe surfing”.

While they can normally seek guidance about moral and ethical standards of behaviour at home, at school or at their place of worship, they may find themselves pretty much on their own when operating at the cutting edge of technology.

In ALRC 108, the ALRC concludes that concerns about the privacy of children and young people are best addressed through education, not regulation. Education initiatives will equip children and young people with the necessary information and analytical skills to make appropriate decisions about withholding or disclosing personal information in different circumstances.

Accordingly, the ALRC recommends that the Office of the Privacy Commissioner develop and publish educational material for children and young people about privacy issues, and in particular the privacy implications of using social networking websites.3

The ALRC also recommends that state and territory education departments incorporate education about privacy, including privacy in the online environment, into school curriculums.4

Further, the ALRC’s recommendation that the Australian government fund a longitudinal study of the attitudes of Australians, in particular young Australians, to privacy will help with future policy-making in this area.5

ALTHEA GIBSON is a legal officer with the Australian Law Reform Commission. For further information, visit the website http://www.alrc.gov.au or ph (02) 8238 6312.


1. In ALRC 108, and in this article, “child” is used to refer to an individual under 13 years of age, and “young person” is used to refer to an individual between 13 and 18 years of age.

2. Australian Bureau of Statistics, Children’s Participation in Cultural and Leisure Activities, Australia, Apr 2006, 4901.0 (2006).

3. ALRC, For Your Information: Australian privacy law and practice, ALRC 108, (2008), Rec 67–2, 67–3.

4. Note 3 above, Rec 67–4.

5. Note 3 above, Rec 67–1.

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